Chi Lives: how to make the most of your jail time | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Calendar

Chi Lives: how to make the most of your jail time


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Most upper-middle-class felons would rather not broadcast their prison records to the world. Not Ric Borelli. He's made his time in the joint the centerpiece of his one-man show, Best Dope in Town, which opens tonight at the ImprovOlympic.

Growing up on the North Shore, the son of successful Argentinean immigrants, Borelli says he thought of prison as something that happened to other, less fortunate people. "I didn't think I would go to prison because I was from Wilmette and people from Wilmette don't go to prison."

That all changed 14 years ago.

Unemployed and directionless after high school, reeling from his parents' messy divorce, Borelli drifted, trying to figure out what to do with his life. "I wandered around the North Shore," he says, "smokin' weed, hanging out with my buddies--who were also living at home." He moved to Florida for a short time, then returned to Illinois, where he shared an apartment with a friend and his mother in Glenview. By then his buddies had moved on from pot and beer to coke, and Borelli found the cost of coke a burden.

"I'm thinking I'm going to be spending 25 bucks here, 50 bucks there on coke. Then my friend told me where I could get a quarter ounce of coke and how to divide it up. I started selling small amounts--half gram, a gram at a time."

His plan was to do it just long enough to get a good job and an apartment. But every time he tried quitting he'd think about the lost revenue and couldn't resist.

Then one day in 1987 he got a call from someone looking for four ounces of cocaine. "I told him, 'I don't sell quarter pounds,' but he's like, 'Let's just say you did sell that much. Not that you're gonna, but if you did, how much would you sell it for?' I thought about it a second."

Borelli admits he was blinded by dollar signs. "I thought, six grand, I could make $3,300." He had a twinge of doubt, but the money was too good. He concocted an elaborate plan, hoping it would give him some legal wiggle room if the deal turned out to be a setup. He met the client at a local motel, where the client opened his valise of cash and Borelli counted the money. Then they drove to a local forest preserve for the pickup.

"I remember two guys playing Frisbee," he says. "My dealer dropped the coke in the bushes and then returned to his car to see how the deal went." Borelli's plans hinged on his client retrieving the coke, but his client refused, demanding that Borelli get it himself. Borelli handed over the cocaine, and as soon as he grabbed the cash he saw, out of the corner of his eye, "the two guys playing Frisbee running over with guns drawn....Two cars pull behind me on the pavement. Two cars drove up on the grass. They knocked me down. They've all got their guns on me. They're like, 'Lie still or we're gonna blow your head off.'"

His family posted bond, and while his case dragged out in the courts, Borelli, who'd always been the class clown, decided to finally follow through on a long-deferred dream of getting into Second City. He took a job at the theater in the coatroom, studied improvisation at Victory Gardens and ImprovOlympic, and discovered he really did have a talent for making people laugh.

Borelli was well liked at Second City, and was in the running for Second City's touring company when his case came to trial. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison. He served only two and a half years, but it was enough to throw him off track. Yet it was in prison that he first started making plans to turn his experience into a one-man show.

After he was released in 1991 he got a shot at Second City's touring company, but it didn't work out; he was fired after a year. In 1996 he moved to LA and hooked up with a gang of Second City alums who hung out and performed at the now-defunct Upfront Theatre. He found work acting in TV and movies, including a small part in Natural Born Killers and a guest appearance on Love Boat: The Next Wave. In his spare time he polished his one-man show.

A year and a half ago he got a chance to refine it at the HBO Workspace in LA, before moving in for a six-week run at the Tamarind Theater. In October the show moved to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City for another six weeks. Last month he won an LA Weekly Theater Award for best male solo performance.

Borelli's currently an ensemble member on MTV's Andy Dick Show, and Dick's production company is producing Best Dope's Chicago engagement. "When I first got out of prison I felt like I was wearing this scarlet letter," he says. But now, ten years later, he's finding that crime may actually pay.

Best Dope in Town opens this Friday, May 25, at 10:30 at the ImprovOlympic's Del Close Theater, 3541 N. Clark, and runs Fridays through June 29. Tickets are $11; call 773-880-0199 for more information. --Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →